A poem by Saigyo:
On Mount Yoshino
I shall change my route
From last year’s broken branch trail,
And in parts unseen
Seek the cherry flowers
Saigyo, twelfth century Japanese poet priest, suffused his poems with natural images and in this one we are aware of a simplicity of voice and solitariness, (wabi – sabi) and no wonder – Saigyo frequented remote mountain areas, living a hermit-like life at times but he also travelled to shrines, temples and to the seashore. The effect of his style here is to evoke a strong emotional response; he speaks to the heart through his use of a condensed poetic form and powerfully evocative natural images and ideas for the reader/hearer to contemplate. These images, moreover, convey a subjective interpretation underlying the object of his poem; the images may be understood metaphorically. In this poem Saigyo seems to suggest (to the writer, at least) that it is always possible to take conscious control of our life in an upward trend by resolutely deciding a new direction to our mind.
Mount Yoshino in Nara prefecture, Japan, is famous for its stunning flowering cherry displays. There are about 30,00 cherry trees of many varieties in four sections of the mountain area at different altitudes. There are several important shrines and temples located around Mount Yoshino which also attract visitors. In the spring, the Japanese people hold a cherry blossom viewing celebration each year, called Hanami, during the brief two to three week blossoming period. People take trips in great numbers to view the delicate beauty of the cherry blossoms. The sakura (flowering cherry) season is taken as a metaphor for life, a time to remember that life is fleeting and therefore precious; a time to take stock and evaluate what is important, what has been achieved and what to do next. The appreciation of the cherry blossoms lies in their transitoriness.
The fleeting beauty of the blossoms impart a lesson in non-attachment, reminding us that we have no permanent grip on the things of the world, and that when the time comes for us to release our hold, we may do so naturally and with good heart. In fact, the short duration of the blossoms enhances our appreciation of them. Saigyo, as the poem indicates, viewed the cherry blossom, as others do nowadays, but he did so alone. He would have travelled from the bottom to the summit of Mount Yoshino on foot. The solitary voice of the poem echoes our solitary choices, our individual steps on the path of inner training with our eyes set on our spiritual destination.
In this poem, Saigyo proclaims that he will give up his old direction, his ‘broken-branch trail’ and pursue another path. Saigyo’s description powerfully evokes an image of a much-frequented way, littered with the debris of spike-ended branches, snapped underfoot by tramping over the same territory. It is easy to imagine the discomfort of the trail—the way in which the movements become hampered and jerky, causing a stumble here and there. The ‘broken-branch trail’ is a metaphor for the entrenched ideas we entertain, supported by the ego, about the kind of people we are. Such ideas impede the flow of harmonious thought and action, because they spring from a misunderstanding about our real nature.
Before we begin to meditate and dispassionately observe the mind, we are hardly conscious of the repetitive and rooted attitudes that we carry around like so much heavy baggage. We think they are part of ourselves.
When we stick to the same ways of thinking and reacting, our actions are bound by egoism and we grow rigid and unflexible, like the broken branches of Saigyo’s poem. The poem indicates that, if we are open to the insights of those steeped in spiritual thought and practice, and what they teach us, we can positively intervene in the world of our thoughts, by decisively choosing to ‘change our route’ and to consciously steer the mind.
Saigyo’s changed route will be fresh and untrammelled. He will seek, with the intuitive eye, the cherry blossoms of non-attachment to the world that arises in the awakening to spiritual reality. Saigyo’s ‘in parts yet unseen’ will be the hitherto unknown territory where exquisite beauty reveals itself in profound meditation on spiritual reality.
The universal Consciousness underlies and is within every particle of the world, including ourselves, and transcends it too. It is the great power that lights the world and our own minds. All of the elements of the world are interconnected. We are, then, essentially one with that Consciousness. Our personality is largely a matter of our own self-creation, and our potential is far, far greater than the limitations set by our human character. It has been said that everyone has an infinite world of beauty and goodness in his mind, by virtue of the higher Self, the spiritual reality, which is the power source of the mind. By bringing our mind, then, into contact with the powerhouse of the real Self, even in the initial stages of meditation, we can find our life favourably changed, because our mind will be clearer and more harmonious, capable of serenity, love, beauty of thought and action, and compassion. If our interest and efforts are sustained, the mind itself will reveal to us the path that leads to the realization of the unchanging, all-abiding principle as our true nature.